It’s 10 minutes before noon at the Jasper Curry House. Owner and head chef, Gopal Shelke, is busy making naan bread. His
hands move like he’s playing a tabla: rhythmic, graceful and lightning fast.
Shelke turns the dough, slaps it, rolls it out and portions it off. He dabs the segments with butter and drops them into a clay tandoor oven. Finally, with barely a minute before his wife Savita unlocks the door and lets in the patrons who’ve been lingering since 11:30, Shelke fishes the naan out of the oven with two long metal wands. The sweet, slightly charred aroma wafts through the restaurant as Savita places the soft bread in one of nine stainless steel chaffing dishes. The Jasper Curry House is ready for service.
It wasn’t always this routine. Even now, understaffed and overworked, Shelke recalls with a shudder the first day he opened: May 15, 2015. With no full time employees apart from himself, Shelke had to resort to recruiting friends to help cook, clean and wait tables. Although he’d worked in many kitchens since he apprenticed as a cook in Mumbai, India, including that of the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, where he got h
is start in Canada, he had actually never worked in a restaurant that served Indian food. Back then, he didn’t even know how to make naan.
“That first night we used the naan we bought from Sysco,” he laughed. “I had to practice to make it from scratch.”
Practice he did. He had no other choice. When he opened his doors that first summer, Shelke had $70 in his bank account. It was do or die.
“We ran out of food in the first couple days,” he recalled. “That’s when I realized that this is something I can do for my future.”
Shelke’s future didn’t always look so promising. When he first came to Jasper, in 2008, he became ill. He was experiencing excruciating headaches, but doctors only prescribed painkillers. Finally, it was determined his blood pressure was dangerously high. He spent three weeks in an Edmonton hospital, alone and
miserable. The prognosis: he needed a new kidney.
Back to Mumbai he went. Although Shelke grew up in a small farming community, he lived in India’s largest city since Grade 10, sharing a 12×12-foot dwelling with his family in one of Mumbai’s festering slums.
As such, after his operation, in which his mother donated one of her kidneys to her then 26-year-old son, Shelke wanted to come back to Jasper. Canada represented a cleaner, healthier lifestyle, he believed. He went back
to JPL, where he learned to cook at a high level, developed his English and made friendships. Then, after six years, it was time to take the next step.
“I felt locals were asking for an Indian restaurant in town,” he said.
It was a demand he would have to take a huge risk to meet. He had scraped a bit of money together, but nowhere near enough to open a new restaurant. There was equipment to buy, renovations to make, staff to hire. The Community Futures West Yellowhead business centre based in Hinton helped him get over the hump. Friends and family also came to the table with critical help.
“That summer felt good,” he said. “Locals were talking good about the food, word was spreading.”
Word has continued to spread. Unfortunately, help has not become any easier to find. This summer has stretched the Jasper Curry House thinner than ever before. Shelke and his wife work from morning until midnight, every day. On the Canada Day Long Weekend, despite the lineup of people who wanted to get a helping of butter chicken or eggplant masala, Shelke had to shut the doors early. Running a skeleton crew, by the end of the night, the quality of the dining experience was starting to suffer.
“I don’t want to make our customers unhappy by not having food or good service,” Shelke said.
Despite those difficulties, Shelke is still seeing a demand for more ethnic food in Jasper. For two summers he has had tour companies knocking on his door, only to be disappointed that they can’t fit their group inside his
small restaurant space. For that reason, Shelke is once again taking another leap of faith: this winter, he hopes to open a new space featuring South Indian, Thai and other exotic flavours. Unlike the Curry House, however, when it’s not catering to tour groups, Shelke envisions an à la carte menu. He’s picked out the space, construction is underway, he just needs bodies—who will inevitably need accommodations.
“I might have to put staff in Hinton,” he shrugged.
Shelke and his wife are committed to Jasper. While he still heads back to India every winter to farm with his family, as he expertly flips his homemade naan bread he reflects on putting roots down in the Canadian Rockies.
“When I speak to my family I tell them that business is good, that life is good,” he says. “I like what I’m doing.”